How does stress affect cardiovascular health?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’m under a lot of stress at work. My doctor warned me that if I don’t get my stress under control, it could affect my cardiovascular health. Is this true?

DEAR READER:

Yes, it’s true. Long-term, constant stress can harm many aspects of your health, including your cardiovascular health.

Stress is the body’s way of responding to threat. Our distant prehistoric ancestors had a pretty stressful life, but it was different than the stressful lives we have. They knew that at any moment they might be killed. Back then, it was lions that were the threat.

Today’s “lions” don’t threaten to eat us; they just threaten to take our jobs. Today, there’s a lot to do, and a lot of hassles that make it hard to do all the things that need to be done. We have the drip-drip-drip of multitasking; sometimes we need to be in three places at once.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) includes a range of ailments that affect your heart and the blood vessels that transport blood throughout your body. Two examples of CVD are heart attacks and strokes.

How might stress contribute to CVD? To begin with, stress appears to increase cholesterol levels. People with high levels of “bad” cholesterol are more likely to develop atherosclerosis. As fatty deposits accumulate on artery walls, the channel that the blood flows through becomes progressively narrower. Eventually, blood flow is obstructed. The blockage can cause angina, a heart attack or stroke.

What’s more, repeatedly arousing the body’s stress response can cause blood pressure to rise and platelets to become stickier. Stickier platelets make blood clots more likely. And ongoing high blood pressure damages the heart, blood vessels and other organs. It greatly increases your chances of developing heart disease.

Stress may also contribute to inflammation. Chronic inflammation plays a key role in the process leading to cholesterol-clogged arteries and heart attacks. Inflammation also influences the formation of artery-blocking clots. Clots are the ultimate cause of heart attacks and many strokes.

Stress can negatively influence behaviors that affect cardiovascular risk. People who are stressed are more likely to smoke and less likely to engage in physical activity. And I, for one, tend to eat more when I’m stressed.

Read more about strategies to manage your stress in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress: Manage Your Problems, Big and Small, Every Day” by Dr. Jeff Brown of Harvard Medical School. Learn more about it here.

On a more positive note, managing your stress can lower your risk of developing CVD. Whether you’re struggling with financial worries, marital discord or, as in your case, work-related stress, talk to your doctor about strategies to help you relax.